BEMIDJI-Area leaders are trying to strengthen the pipeline of workers from college classrooms to the job market.

Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra met with education and industry representatives Friday in Bemidji to discuss ways to equip and supply more workers to meet the increasing demand from businesses in Minnesota.

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"We have more open jobs than we have unemployed workers," said Darrin Strosahl, vice president of academic affairs at Northwest Technical College. "That's a scary really is a race for talent."

The meeting was an extension of work that NTC already has undertaken to close that gap. The school has built a commercial refrigeration/HVAC program after meeting with industry professionals and asking them what should or shouldn't be included to help students be more prepared.

BSU and NTC President Faith Hensrud spoke about "Niganawenimaanaani," which is a program meant to increase the number of indigenous students in the nursing track. Hensrud said the program provides mentorship, tuition assistance as well as a financial stipend.

After referencing those two programs, though, the bulk of the meeting focused on an open-table discussion on ways BSU and NTC could help facilitate the flow of workers into the job market.

Representatives from organizations such as Bemidji Area Schools, the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, Sanford Health, and others spoke on what they need, or what could be improved upon, regarding the employees they often hire from BSU, NTC and other Minnesota State organizations.

For example, Brian Matthews, Sanford Health vice president of human resources for northern Minnesota, said the hospital has been able to grow extensively by hiring BSU and NTC students. Because of that, he said he'd be concerned whether the two schools are receiving enough resources to continually churn out the high volume of medically trained workers.

"We've been out visiting with businesses and some of our partners in the region saying 'what do you need and how can we help?'" Hensrud said.

The topics largely related to several priorities Strosahl highlighted from NTC's strategic plan for 2018-23, which include increasing responsiveness to workforce needs; improving/increasing student success to include retention, graduation rates and job placement; enhancing community, business and education partnerships; and becoming the customized training provider of choice for business and industry in the greater Bemidji region.

Part of the conversation, though, went beyond ways the schools could cater their college programs to the needs of businesses. Rather, it also focused on the need to retain students and provide a more personalized learning experience.

"There are two fundamental ways higher education is changing: how our students learn and who our students are," Malhotra said. "Often we ask the question 'Are the students ready for us?' We have to start asking the question, 'Are we ready for the students where they are?'"